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Sefarad: Travelling between Disciplines

In this blog Julian Weiss writes about the research seminar, given by Professor Julia Phillips Cohen (Vanderbilt), ‘Remembering Sepharad: History, Memory, Politics’

On 31st March 2017 (coincidentally the 525th anniversary of the Edict expelling Jews from Spain), we inaugurated our series of activities relating to Sefarad with a research seminar conducted by Professor Julia Phillips Cohen (Vanderbilt University). Her paper, entitled The Past as a Foreign Country: Remembering Spain in Ottoman Lands, gave a foretaste of her current major research project on the cultural legacy of Sefarad after the expulsions and forced conversions of the 1490s in Spain and Portugal.The ambitious scope of her new project, as well as her previous two books, Becoming Ottomans and Sephardi Lives, made her an ideal person to initiate this line of research in the Language Acts and Worldmaking project.[1] Operating within two disciplinary frameworks at Vanderbilt—the Program in Jewish Studies and the Department of History—she also possesses a B.A. in Spanish.  The detail is not merely anecdotal. Her training and current academic practice illustrate one of the key principles of the AHRC Open World Research Initiative: namely, that modern language research should be ‘multi-disciplinary and demonstrate the strategic importance of language-based research and enhanced language expertise across the arts and humanities’. To compile the documentary volume Sephardi Lives, Julia and her co-editor Sarah Abrevaya Stein, needed to work with texts composed in no less than fifteen languages. Although the languages used in today’s encounter fall well short that total, it is worth emphasising, as we review our discussions, the vital role played by language in the work of this workshop’s participants, who are variously based in departments of modern languages, comparative literature, Oriental studies, and History. And yet the question remains: how has today’s collaboration demonstrated the ‘strategic importance of language-based research and enhanced language expertise’? Has our work been language-based, or have we used our language expertise simply to provide access to materials that can be mined for a variety of disciplinary purposes? We shall return to this and other issues later; but the question also underpinned Julia’s seminar paper on the ways Spain was remembered in Ottoman lands.

She began by recalling how, in 2012, the Spanish government announced its plans to grant citizenship to the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. The Portuguese issued similar legislation one year later. This political development, described by Spain’s Justice Minister as a ‘historic reparation of […] the greatest mistake in Spanish history’, sparked a flurry of interest from Jews of Iberian origin across the globe—from Latin America and the U.S. to Israel and Turkey. Based on the assumption of Sephardic Jews’ continued cultural identification with their one-time homeland, the Spanish law promised to reward their ‘fidelity and special ties to Spain’. Julia’s aim was to unravel the complexities hidden behind such claims of a centuries-long special relationship and cultural affiliation. The threads that tied diasporic Sephardic Jews to their Iberian origins were discontinuous and tangled. And the importance of recognizing discontinuity and of understanding tangled histories provides yet another of our concluding discussion points.

Julia reminded us that the political initiatives of the last five years had a precedent. Just over one hundred years ago, in 1904, the Spanish Senator Ángel Pulido started a campaign to build bridges between Spain and the descendants of Jews expelled from Iberia in 1492. Both Pulido’s campaign and the modern political initiatives elicited from Sephardic Jews a mixed response: some dwelt nostalgically upon the ties that linked them to their shared past (ties of language, literature, family names and so forth), while others expressed anger and bitterness. However, in both cases, Julia observed,

    they evinced a sense of emotional urgency over the question of their relationship to Spain, suggesting that this question had remained alive in their communities over the many centuries since their ancestors’ expulsion. [...] It is almost as if no time has passed—as if the individuals in question had lived through the experience of exile themselves.

At this point, Julia shifted her perspective on time and place, focussing attention on Ottoman territories during a period spanning about 150 years, from the early decades of the eighteenth century to the second half of the nineteenth. As she did so, the quotation of her title came into sharper focus: the now almost proverbial opening line from L.P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between, ‘The past is a foreign country’ continues ‘they do things differently there’. And the difference between the modern and early modern representations and memories of Sefarad could hardly have been clearer. Ottoman Ladino sources from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries scarcely mention Spain, and there are no direct references to the expulsion or the Inquisition, the two events that give Sephardic collective memory its particular shape and emotional weight.

To demonstrate her point, Julia drew on the evidence of probably the most influential and widely disseminated work of Ladino literature: the Me’am Lo’ez, a multi-volume series of commentaries on the Pentateuch that began in 1730 and entertained and edified a wide range of social classes. Drawing on three ‘Spanish’ tales from different editions, Julia argued that they represent the country ‘as a legendary place of the past’, a place of miracles, and as ‘a remote and captivating locale’. Viewed together, they suggest that ‘the country’s allure rested not in how closely modern Ottoman Sephardim held Spain to their hearts but rather in the comfortable distance between them’. These wondrous tales, in which Jews are vindicated or saved from persecution, have the function of Purim stories and indicate that ‘Spain remained more a place of marvel than a site of bitter memories for many’.

More clues about cultural memories of Spain could be gleaned from the various terms Ottoman Sephardim described their language. Sometimes the terms ‘Spanish’ (español) and ‘Jewish’ (judezmo or djidío) were conflated; at others, we find Ladino, Romance, franko (‘European’) or la’az (‘foreign’, non-Hebrew). The range of terms signposts the diversity of perceived historical ties to the Iberian Peninsula, and some terms hardly signalled Spanish roots at all. And at this point, as she discussed perceptions of language and cultural identity, Julia introduced her hypothesis about how and why Ottoman Sephardim began to change their understanding of, and attitudes towards, their historical relationship to Iberia. Language, as one marker of cultural identity, is heavily inflected by social class and education. By the mid-nineteenth century, institutional changes (such as the emergence of the Franco-Jewish Alliance Israélite Universelle), new disciplinary practices (romance philology), and curricular developments (the introduction of post-Biblical Jewish history), brought the Iberian past into sharper focus. As education re-routed collective memory back to Iberia, the roots were not inevitably defined as purely ‘Spanish’. Julia quoted a rabbi from Izmir, Haim Palache, who in the 1860s wrote ‘El espanyol ke avlamos ke el shoresh es de Portugal’–the roots of the Spanish we speak are in Portugal, and he also listed ‘Sefaradi’ among the many linguistic influences on his native tongue.

Returning to historical and fictional representations of Iberia, Julia concluded by tracing a shift in perception and modes of remembering. Couched ‘in a new emotional language of collective trauma’, ‘tragic’, ‘touching’ or ‘sad’ narratives of the past now emphasised persecution, exile, and suffering. The Inquisition and the expulsion were now centre stage, replacing a generalised mystique of that faraway place with the more focussed (and now more common) mystique of the ‘Golden Age’ of Spanish Jewry, and the narrative of Sephardic suffering and decline. Although Julia drew attention to the different agendas behind these new modes and constructions of cultural memory, perhaps the more important methodological point she made in her conclusion concerned the source and range of discourses that conditioned the shift she described. Many of the sources used by the Ottoman Sephardim to rethink their past during the late nineteenth century were neither Sephardi nor Ottoman. Closer contacts with—for example—Spanish historians and scholars influenced their visions of Sefarad, and, coupled with political turmoil within the Ottoman empire, which brought their own traumas and ruptures, they began to ‘conflate their local landscape with their visions of Spain’: a place of loss, but also a place of potential refuge and reconciliation.

Julia’s paper opened up discussion and anticipated research in a number of areas relevant to the Travelling Concepts strand. For example, her emphasis on the role of storytelling in creating a sense of place and identity intersects with Rachel Scott’s project on the travels of the Panchatantra (the medieval Castilian Calila e Dimna and its variants). Her interest in the entangled histories of Spanish and Portuguese Jews also underpins Julian Weiss’s research into the early modern reception of Flavius Josephus, especially in seventeenth-century Amsterdam. More generally, Julia’s work on Sephardic cultural memory illustrates the importance of understanding how visions of Sefarad, Al-Andalus and Iberia—seen from inside and outside the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking worlds—are inextricably interwoven and demand transnational and transhistorical approaches. Some of the possibilities of these comparatist perspective were explored in the remaining two research events devoted to Travelling Concepts in 2017: Islam and Judaism in the cultural memory of Spain and Portugal (Barcelona, May 4th) and Sepharad: A Travelling Concept (Oxford, June 7th).

[1] See Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); and, edited with Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Sephardi Lives: A Documentary History, 1700-1950 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014).